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The future of Ubisoft

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The future of Ubisoft

SAINT-MANDE, France — In this sleepy and well-to-do suburb of Paris, Ubisoft’s new(ish) headquarters stand out. Past a gate and security guards lies a more than 320,000 square foot office building made of glass and metal. Set on a modern campus, the mustard-yellow Floresco building opened in October 2020 and now houses nearly 1,770 Ubisoft employees.

The campus, slightly incongruous here, would fit seamlessly in Silicon Valley. It’s an upgrade for Ubisoft, a flagship of the French tech sector, whose previous HQ was located behind a parking garage and housed about 650 people.

Ubisoft is one of the largest publishers in the video game industry, a multinational effort best known for “Assassin’s Creed,” “Far Cry” and putting Tom Clancy’s name on more things than even the prolific military novelist did. Now, the company and its portfolio of over 100 active games are viewed as a desirable target for competitors as the industry enters a period of consolidation. Ubisoft has also been at the epicenter of some of the most seismic changes to the industry over the past several years, including a reckoning around workplace misconduct — a problem the company’s leaders argue they have properly dealt with and are seeking to put behind them.

As the video game industry evolves, Ubisoft must evolve with it — or die trying. That is the message company executives sought to convey Thursday at an event in Saint-Mande during which they previewed a long-term strategy oriented around a raft of games, partnerships and technologies meant to carry the company into the industry’s next chapter.

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Some of these initiatives, unveiled to the public Saturday in a showcase titled “Forward,” include a partnership with Netflix to produce three new mobile games starting in 2023, an expansion of the indie game catalogue available on Ubisoft+, the company’s game-subscription service, and a plan for the future of Assassin’s Creed for the 15th anniversary this year of Ubisoft’s best-known franchise.

The video game industry hasn’t been immune to the economic disruptions of the past few years, including the impact of the pandemic on consumer spending and supply chains. But major players, including Ubisoft CEO and co-founder Yves Guillemot, expect it to grow to more than $300 billion by 2030. Companies seeking a slice of that market face head winds: technologies are changing, as are players’ quality expectations; talent in this field is in high-demand and hard to come by; and norms and standards are evolving, with developers and players pushing back against what they see as a culture of sexual harassment, a lack of diversity and poor working conditions prevalent in the industry.

“This will be a challenging and unforgiving journey: Either you keep up the pace of change or you are out,” Guillemot said Thursday, shortly after it was announced that Tencent had acquired a minority stake in the company Guillemot and his brothers founded in 1986, and through which they run Ubisoft.

While recent flagship titles like “Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla” and “Far Cry 6” have proven successful from a commercial standpoint, ventures into the realm of live service — more easily monetized multiplayer games meant to be perpetually updated — haven’t fared quite so well, with upcoming games like “XDefiant” failing to garner fanfare while previous attempts like the battle royale title “Hyper Scape” and an NFT-laden update to “Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Breakpoint” crashed and burned. Ubisoft has now endured multiple harsh fiscal quarters and is struggling to find a new hit amid delays and middling releases. In July, before the Tencent announcement, Guillemot called on staff to cut expenses wherever possible.

As the company plans for the future, it is orienting its strategy around a handful of its most successful properties. The newly announced “Assassin’s Creed Mirage” — set in 9th century Baghdad as a throwback to the series’ narrative origins — is Ubisoft’s first step in the direction of a live service future for its biggest franchise. It will be released in 2023, the company announced Saturday, and feature Iranian American actress Shohreh Aghdashloo as the voice of Roshan, mentor to street thief-turned-master assassin Basim Ibn Is’haq.

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After that, “Assassin’s Creed Codename Red” will be set in feudal Japan. It will be followed by “Codename Hexe,” a game with a decidedly witchy feel about which the company has revealed few details other than to say it is being developed by Ubisoft Montreal. Ubisoft will also release a free-to-play mobile game called “Assassin’s Creed Codename Jade,” set in 215 B.C. China.

“Red” and “Hexe” will hook into a larger Assassin’s Creed hub called “Infinity,” alongside multiplayer experiences the company is pursuing, including one code-named “Invictus.” Historically single-player focused, “Assassin’s Creed” may or may not make an elegant leap into this new age of gaming. Doubtless, however, Ubisoft is betting big, marshaling over a dozen studios to create the next set of sequels in the long-running (and parkouring) series.

Ubisoft will also partner with Netflix to produce an “Assassin’s Creed” mobile game. In 2023, as part of the same partnership, they will release mobile games that draw on Ubisoft’s “Valiant Hearts” and “Mighty Quest.”

Ubisoft has sought to grow at pace with these new projects. It hired 4,000 people during the fiscal year ending in March 2022 — nearly a third of them women, according to Chief People Officer Anika Grant. Six hundred of those new employees had previously left the company and were rehired — a sign, says Marie-Sophie de Waubert, Senior Vice President of Studio Operations, “that people feel the change” at Ubisoft.

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Since summer of 2020, the company has been the subject of a #MeToo reckoning, with employees accusing leadership of tacitly enabling a culture of misconduct and abuse. While several accused executives left the company in the wake of investigations, some employees — including a collective of current and former employees called “A Better Ubisoft” — continue to report dissatisfaction with how leadership has handled misconduct reports.

“Yes, we stumbled, and we have acknowledged that,” Guillemot euphemistically said Thursday. The CEO — who was named in a complaint filed in July 2021 by a French union and some employees that alleged “institutional sexual harassment” at the company — said Ubisoft “learned a lot along the way” and has “made meaningful progress.”

Since 2020, Ubisoft has rolled out a new reporting system for misconduct, hired a diversity and inclusion team and mandated that company executives receive anti-harassment and anti-discrimination trainings, says Grant, who was hired in April of last year to lead an embattled HR team that had itself been the subject of employee complaints. “It’s not where it was a year ago,” she said. “I do feel that as an organization, we have moved on.”

Members of “A Better Ubisoft” wrote in a Q & A published Wednesday on a website run by the Assassin’s Creed Sisterhood movement, a community of fans that advocate for better gender representation in the franchise, that they consider the changes implemented at the company in the wake of the scandals inadequate. Some of the members, quoted under pseudonyms, said the diversity and inclusion team is “under-staffed and under-funded,” complained of a top-down approach from management and said some of those accused of misconduct were still working at the company.

Grant, the Chief People Officer, said anyone at Ubisoft who has been the subject of a complaint has been investigated. “If they remain, they’ve either been exonerated, or they’ve been appropriately disciplined,” she told The Post.

“A lot of talk and not much walk,” one pseudonymous member of “A Better Ubisoft” was quoted as saying.

“From what I see of the whole company, I do not think that this is fair,” Marc-Alexis Cote, Vice President and Executive Producer of “Assassin’s Creed,” told The Post on Thursday. Cote, who also led Ubisoft’s Quebec City Studio, one of several studios named in complaints two years ago of toxic work environments at the company, said “things have changed a lot since 2020, both within the [Quebec] studio and within Ubisoft at large,” with regular dialogues with staff and the implementation of more “collaborative” and less “competitive” ways of working.

“The Ubisoft of 2022 is not the Ubisoft of 2020. It’s a good thing,” Cote said. “And I hope the Ubisoft of 2024 is not the Ubisoft of 2022, and that we’re on a path to continuous improvement,” he added.

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All of this tumult leaves Ubisoft in an uncertain state as the video game industry enters a period of unprecedented consolidation exemplified by Microsoft’s $68.7 billion purchase of Activision Blizzard, Take-Two’s $12.7 billion buyout of Zynga and Sony’s $3.6 billion acquisition of Bungie. The nearly $300 million purchase by Tencent of a 49.9 percent economic stake in Guillemot Brothers Limited increases the Chinese conglomerate’s control over Ubisoft, of which it previously purchased a 4.5 percent stake. According to Guillemot, this will not presage a takeover.

Within Ubisoft, news of the Tencent investment appears to have gone over well with executives, who say they back Guillemot’s message, laid out in an email to staff viewed by The Washington Post, that Ubisoft will remain independent. “From a creative perspective, it’s business as usual — it doesn’t affect us at all,” said Fawzi Mesmar, Vice President of Editorial at Ubisoft.

Still, “the thing that I know for certain about the games industry, having been here for twenty years, is that it’s always going to be changing,” he added. “There is never a dull moment.”

Nathan Grayson contributed to this report.

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Go to Publisher: Technology
Author: Annabelle Timsit